Getting Personal: Cuéllar and the ILEA Controversy

A NACLA investigative article into the Salvadoran branch of the International Law Enforcement Academy, a U.S.-sponsored global network of police schools, raised concerns among some human rights activists and U.S. policy analysts. They criticize the article as a "personal attack" against Benjamín Cuéllar, a Salvadoran human rights activist, whose organization offers human rights training at the academy. The author defends his findings writing that Cuéllar's participation constitutes "the co-optation" of human rights discourses in the service of U.S. military intervention.

August 8, 2008

To the editors:

We, the undersigned, write to express serious concerns about the article “Another­ SOA? A U.S. Police Academy in El Salvador Worries Critics,” which appeared in the March/April edition of the NACLA Report on the Americas. There has been debate in El Salvador about the recently established U.S.-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador, and the article reports on real and legitimate concerns about transparency and accountability at the academy.

However, it frames its criticism of the ILEA as a personal attack on Benjamín Cuéllar, director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA), who decided to offer human rights trainings at the academy.

Cuéllar is a distinguished human rights defender with a long history of selfless and courageous dedication to the cause of promoting human rights in El Salvador, many times at grave personal risk. As director of IDHUCA he has fought tirelessly for accountability of the security forces through advocacy, public denunciation, and local and international litigation. It is relevant to note for those less familiar with El Salvador that IDHUCA has personally felt the tragic effects of abuses by security forces, notably the murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter, on the University of Central America campus by U.S.-trained members of the Salvadoran military in 1989.

As the article notes, IDHUCA decided to engage with the ILEA, offering a human rights course to police trainees similar to a one it has offered since the early 1990s. IDHUCA thought it important to offer the human rights training and believed that access to the institution would allow it to examine the curriculum and materials, and the courses offered. IDHUCA saw this as an opportunity to review the content and scope of the courses being given and to press for greater transparency and accountability within the institution. One may agree with this strategy or not; other organizations in the human rights and legal community in El Salvador chose not to participate in the ILEA. But agree or disagree, it is unjust and false to suggest, as the article does, that IDHUCA’s work at the ILEA implies a blanket endorsement of the academy and all its practices, or an indifference to concerns about transparency and accountability.

U.S. support for police assistance and training has been a controversial issue in El Salvador and other countries in Latin America, particularly given the history of U.S. policy in the region. That concern has been exacerbated by U.S. treatment of prisoners in Iraq and concerns about the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. base at Guantánamo. The debate over how best to professionalize the police forces of countries with histories of gross human rights violations and to promote much needed reforms is a valid one. Police training programs ought to be conducted transparently, there should be civilian oversight, and there should be clear assurances that both students and trainers will be civilians, rather than military personnel. As the article notes, there are concerns about all these issues at the ILEA in El Salvador.

However, the article removes the ILEA discussion from an institutional context, instead focusing on Cuéllar as an individual, emphasizing its view of him as a loner in engaging with the academy, calling his beliefs “misguided,” painting him as secretive and unwilling to work with others, and questioning his legitimacy as a human rights defender. This is unfair to Cuéllar.

Human rights activists agree that El Salvador and many other countries in Latin America have much to do to consolidate a democratic police force. In fact, recent events in the region underscore that, however it is done, it is critical that Central American police forces be transformed into more transparent, accountable, and rights-respecting organizations.
These training and reform efforts, of course, must include civilian oversight mechanisms, no military involvement, and a focus on the professionalization of police across the board. There are real disagreements about how to achieve those goals, and differing views on whether and how the United States and others in the international community should play a role in that process, but it is a process that needs to happen. There ought to be serious debate in the human rights, activist, and solidarity communities about those issues.

Unfortunately, Enzinna’s article obscured this real debate, substituting a personal attack on Cuéllar and simplistic criticism of the IDHUCA for a consideration of the issues.

Joy Olson
Executive Director
Washington Office on Latin America

Viviana Krsticevic
Executive Director
Center for Justice and International Law

William LeoGrande
Professor of Government
American University

George Vickers
Director of International Operations
Open Society Institute

Charles T. Call
Assistant Professor
American University

Mark Ungar
Associate Professor
Graduate Center
City University of New York

David Holiday
Program Officer
Latin America Program
Open Society Institute

Lars Schoultz
Kenan Professor of Political Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Alex Wilde
Research Associate
Centro de Ética Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile

Carlos Heredia
Iniciativa Ciudadana
Mexico City

Raúl Benitez Manaut
Universidad Nacional Autónoma
de México

Gino Costa
Ciudad Nuestra, Peru

Joseph Eldridge
American University

Wes Enzinna replies:

I welcome the opportunity to defend my article from this spurious censure. Let me begin with a brief update on the story: In March, the Department of Homeland Security rejected a Freedom of Information Act request filed by NACLA as a part of the reporting for the article. The rejection letter states that granting the request to declassify course materials used at the ILEA “could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

Transparency, as we all agree, remains a problem for the ILEA. So it is in the spirit of full disclosure that I must inform NACLA Report readers that this letter may not be the disinterested critique it purports to be. At the top of the list of signatories is Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and the letter seems to have been coordinated by her office, having been sent for publication by WOLA program director Geoff Thale.

Since December 2005, WOLA has met with a series of former U.S. ambassadors to El Salvador with the idea of establishing an initiative, as Cuéllar told me, in which “WOLA and the IDHUCA would be working together, as partners, to monitor the ILEA.” I interviewed Thale in December about this, and he said the plan would ideally be a “regular institutional arrangement” and that it had “already been verbally agreed to” by the ex-ambassadors he had spoken with.

One therefore wonders if beneath the letter’s “serious concerns” lies a more self-interested concern: rebuffing the critique, implicit in my article, of WOLA’s interest in monitoring the ILEA. Perhaps this explains the letter’s assertion—unsupported by a single citation longer than one word—that my article was a “personal attack” on Cuéllar. It was nothing of the kind. I did not, for example, call Cuéllar’s “beliefs” misguided; I said his specific “belief that the [ILEA] will reform the [National Civilian Police (PNC)] seems misguided,” and I provided evidence for this view.

The letter says that the IDHUCA participated in the ILEA in order “to press for greater transparency and accountability within the institution,” and that “one may agree with this strategy or not.” Unfortunately, it is not just a matter of “agreeing or not”—this strategy is not working, because the ILEA continues to operate with little accountability. I did not say, as the letter claims, that Cuéllar has displayed an “indifference” to such concerns. I merely pointed out that his presence at the school appears to have thus far accomplished little toward these ends. There is nothing “personal” in that.

It is fair to ask: Why hasn’t Cuéllar explained these failures to the public? Why hasn’t the IDHUCA, as the only organization in the position to do so, shared secret information (like school’s course materials) with the broader human rights community? And if Cuéllar remains unable to make the ILEA more accountable and transparent, at what point will the IDHUCA withdraw its support from the academy? These are all important questions raised in my article. By claiming they constitute a personal attack on Cuéllar, the letter effectively takes them off the table.

I accurately portrayed Cuéllar and IDHUCA as isolated on the ILEA question, at least in El Salvador, and noted that “many are questioning his legitimacy as a human rights defender,” as indeed they are. This was a summation of my reporting, which involved interviewing more than a dozen members of the Salvadoran human rights community, none of whom had anything good to say about Cuéllar’s ILEA collaboration. In interview after interview, I listened to Salvadorans describe feeling slighted by Cuéllar and alienated from the IDHUCA. I also quoted Cuéllar at length explaining his position, and I mentioned his standing as an honored and courageous activist. [Editor’s note: A more robust description of Cuéllar’s bravery appeared in the original version of the article and was abridged, at my request, for space reasons.]

The only people I found in El Salvador who supported Cuéllar and the IDHUCA’s position were the U.S. ambassador, the director and program manager of the ILEA, and a PNC agent. I challenge the sponsors of this letter to find one member of the Salvadoran human rights community who supports Cuéllar’s position on the ILEA. I’m willing to bet they cannot do this, since it wasn’t possible for the purposes of the letter: Not a single Salvadoran’s name appears on the list of signatories, most of whom are North American intellectuals.

Cuéllar’s work at the ILEA is of particular interest to those concerned about human rights in Latin America because it exemplifies a new and troubling facet of U.S. intervention in the region: the co-optation of human rights discourse and the paid involvement of local human rights authorities in U.S.-sponsored police and military training programs. If the signatories sincerely want a “real debate,” they must consider this reality. What’s more, such a debate ought not to be circumscribed by narrow questions of achieving expeditious police reform, “however it is done.” This would serve, in fact, to foreclose debate in the name of urgency and obfuscate the properly political question of how the United States achieves regional hegemony in Latin America through a variety of practices.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.